Why does Barbie have such an enduring appeal?
At first, my mum hated her. She railed against that unrealistic figure - all snap-in-half waist and boobs big enough to cause backache. After much begging from five year old me, she finally relented and let me build up a small collection – but with the proviso of encouragement to be creative in making some of the clothes for them myself.
I had a box full of fabric scraps and bits of ribbon, creating costumes by wrapping, tying and (occasionally) stapling together these oddments and my mum also ran up a few tiny garments on the sewing machine. Alongside homemade skirts, there was a modest array of shop-bought outfits – emerald green gowns, shiny pink dresses, polo-necks you had to wrestle over Barbie’s head, little plastic shoes to jam on her feet. My favourites were some green glittery platforms with chunky heels and lots of straps. Different times indeed…
So, I look back and I don’t think Barbie is necessarily awful. I had such fun with all of mine, whether I was setting up elaborate scenes (I was that child who was more into dressing/ arranging/ making them interact and look great than actually playing) or on occasion urging the dolls to abseil down the tree in the garden. Bratz were out of bounds – an illicit treat I could only access at a friend’s house. My Barbies provided hours of entertainment and imagination though, and a good grounding in how to layer up silk and velvet.
Yet there are a few important things to point out. The professions of my Barbies, when first bought, ranged from the ubiquitous (princess) to the rebellious (skater girl) and the professional (photographers and scientists). They weren’t all blonde, long-haired and white either; my mum covertly ensured I had a diverse range. I was perhaps encouraged to play with my dolls in a particularly inventive way. And although there was a certain amount of fluffy female stereotyping, not everything was pink and sparkly and reductively ditzy/ more hair than brain cells.
It seems that in recent years the Barbie stereotype has heightened. Maybe that’s also because I’ve got an increased awareness of beauty ideals and gendered toys. But I do think beyond that, Barbie is less fun than she used to be – even more ‘perfect’ and airbrushed than before. And, yes, the word ‘Barbie’ has always been shorthand for describing a particularly ridiculous, archetypal expectation of brainless femininity, the type that asks boys for help with anything too smart or technical. But I’m sure that the relentless emphasis on looks and proportions and passivity have become more – rather than less – prominent in a world where women are reduced down to their appearance so much of the time.
Add into this the resurgence of Barbie in the fashion world last season - from Moschino to the Karl doll. Apparently all of this is meant to be ‘fun’ and ‘tongue in cheek’ and ‘soooooo innovative’ (fash-speak for, umm, I liked it, but can’t quite articulate how, so I’ll resort to hyperbole). Really though, and I’m only speaking for myself here, I find it quite bizarre. All the Moschino show underlined to me is how ridiculously slender the mould is for catwalk models. In a recent interview with The Observer, Jeremy Scott said that ‘she’s there to bring fun and you shouldn’t really look further into it. She doesn’t promote body dysmorphia, she’s a 12 inch-tall doll. People bring too much of an adult perspective to it. They do to all fashion, really. It’s just clothes and, above all, it’s a choice. Buy it or don’t – you don’t have to have a conniption fit about it.’
As someone whose basic mode of operating is to ‘look further’ into plenty of things, this held no sway. Scott ignores any sense of context or cultural awareness. ‘Perspective’ is bloody important, actually. Yes, fashion is meant to be ‘fun’ (at times) – but one designer doesn’t get to dictate exactly how that ‘fun’ is manifested, and then ignore all suggestions to the contrary. Nothing is ever ‘just clothes’. Designs are rooted in this culture, this age, this society. To claim anything can be separate from all that is pretty laughable. But maybe he’s right. It’s not Barbie that promotes body dysmophia, per se – but the entire ideal pushed forward by the industry. She’s just a kind of vamped up, hyper-exaggerated version of that.
There’s no better exemplification of this than the @barbiestyle Instagram account, which obviously mimics many high profile fashion bloggers/ industry figures. Yet it parodies the conventions, whilst also flagging up the fact that the kinds of bloggers given the biggest exposure and celebration are often those who fit the incredibly slender Barbie-esque measure of what's considered 'attractive'.
Essentially the continued message is that beauty and popularity are constituted online in extraordinarily slender, white figures (black Barbies only make cursory appearances, at best) dressed head to toe in expensive designer gear. This Barbie blogger’s imagined life revolves around shopping, spa days, exercise, jet-setting and taking selfies. Seeing a doll posed to emulate a blogger/ online celeb – but knowing it’s not a piss-take, but rather a seriously clever commercial move – leaves me unsettled. That particular incarnation of Barbie may resemble satire, but she’s not being laughed at. She’s being taken deadly seriously.
The idea for this post was mainly sparked by realising just how perfectly 'Barbie' this vintage 70s pink satin blazer was - it was a present from my mum (and I actually snaffled the skirt off her too for the shoot). The shoes are from a charity shop, and the Barbie was dug out of the loft and dressed accordingly. And talking of Barbies, a while back I wrote a piece for All Walks on Louise O'Neill's brilliant YA book Only Ever Yours - which imagines a dystopian society where looks are the sole factor in determining young women's futures. It's great, and kind of bloody scary. You should buy it.